All voices must be heard in the struggle against poverty

We’ve all heard the headlines; the weight of which we all carry.

The Swansea Poverty Truth Commission is the first in Wales. Being part of this project as community commissioners provides an opportunity that allows us to reflect on the power of people coming together. Those with the lived experience of the struggle against poverty together with those who have access to the resources to make change.

For our launch event we decided to present our stories and right from the start, stigma was a recurring theme. Some of our experiences were more traumatic than others but all left a legacy of self-doubt and a feeling of not fitting in. Also like it was somehow our own fault that we couldn’t afford what everyone else took for granted. If you can’t afford hot water to shower or wash your clothes you are going to smell different from your classmates. If you don’t have enough money for after-school activities, you not only do not acquire those extra skills, but you also internalise the idea that they are not for the likes of you.

The theme persisted into adulthood when people encountered a benefit system which seemed designed to humiliate and deny access rather than help and support. The stigma of poverty was always a big part of our work because everyone had experienced it, either by being made to jump through hoops to feed your children or by just not being able to take part in what the media tells us is a normal lifestyle.

When we had the chance to take part in the ‘How can public services help tackle poverty stigma?’ event in Wrexham, it looked like a perfect fit. Being asked to coproduce the workshop with the Wales Centre for Public Policy (WCPP) not only allowed us to draw on the strengths of relationship building learnt from our Poverty Truth Commission but provided another lens to look through.

At the workshop there was a clear gathering of people from all corners of Wales, from councils and third sector to young people from Wrexham, from our commission in Swansea to the Welsh Government and voices beyond our borders.

It was reassuring to know that a lot of work was already being done on the subject. We found out there are groups like the APLE Collective who have ‘challenging the stigma of poverty’ as one of their core objectives. It was also reassuring that the Welsh Government was taking an active interest in the subject via WCPP. It gave the sense that this focus is not just important to us in Swansea, but it has a stronger voice that’s important to everybody across Wales and beyond.

We are pleased to reflect that the day went well and there was an atmosphere of people genuinely wanting to learn and take away what lessons they could to implement in their organisations or campaign work. There was evidence of the emerging value of building relationships and connections and working together to tackle the struggle against poverty. And the food was good as well.

Some of the big issues that were spoken about were not so much about how much money a person had – but about the impact of entrenched attitudes across wider society. From a young age the divide is highlighted as our children are stigmatised just by fitting into categories such as ‘free school meals’. This often provides a ceiling to a child’s potential, not from the child’s perspective but from the attitudes of adults around them.

In a similar way, poor mental health in adults is exacerbated not just from their experience of struggle against poverty but from the weight of negative attitudes toward the situations they find themselves in – the shame of claiming benefits, for example, is internalised, the subsequent trauma having a much more impactful and heavier cost for everyone.

People spoke passionately during the workshop with some key messages emerging: We need a media that stops and thinks before passing judgment, we need a benefit system that seeks to understand how someone has ended up in need of assistance instead of one that greets each new application with distrust. We need to remove the barriers to access at every possible opportunity. And we need to include the voices and experience of those who struggle against poverty in the decisions and policies that are made about it – we need to do this together.